Finding a cure for pessimism in Rio's favelas

This picture by Silvia Izquierdo of the Associated Press pretty much says it all.
This picture by Silvia Izquierdo of the AP pretty much says it all.

(A Spanish version of this post appears in Prodavinci)

The New Yorker published a shattering article this week by Jon Lee Anderson, about Caracas’ slow, brutal decadence. The city Anderson paints, seen through his foreign eyes, is known by all but it remains gloom-inducing: informal barrios where the only rule of law is violence; middle-class neighborhoods too terrified to fully integrate into the surrounding city; decaying public services; and lack of investment in public spaces.

Just as I was about to give up and let myself be overcome by despair, I read about the dynamic favelas, the poor slums that, much like in our Caracas, surround the hills of Rio de Janeiro.

The Associated Press reports that in one particular favela, Vidigal, home prices have gone from US$5,000 a few years ago to $25,000 now. The Guardian says that average home prices in Rio have shot up by 165% in the last three years. A house with two rooms (not bedrooms, rooms) in Rocinha, one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas, has doubled, from $900 to $1,800 in a single year.

But Rio’s favelas are just like Caracas’ cerros, I say to myself. Could it be that this nightmarish problem that Anderson paints … can be solved?

One of the main things Rio has done is formalize many favelas. In the end of the day, nobody pays good money for a shack in a shantytown if property rights aren’t clear, right?

Formalizing is not a matter of simply giving out deeds to houses. Bureaucracies need to work with communities so that formal property rights do not clash with established property “traditions.” It’s not a matter of “giving” property rights, but of “recognizing” rights that are already there, that the community itself has already legitimized.

This is hard work, but it’s certainly doable. No rule, no statute imposed from high above can solve the myriad of details this process entails.

Another effort Rio has done is to map the favelas. For example, if you go to Google Maps, you can see a lot of the names of the streets in our urbanizaciones. But focus on Barrio Las Casitas de Petare, for example, and the names vanish. Streets, alleys, walkways … none seem to formally exist. An enormous percentage of the ranchos where many Venezuelans live simply do not have a street name or a number associated to them.

For those of us living in actual homes with street names, numbers (and the occasional name), with an actual deed, it is difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who sees that as a privilege only reserved “for the rich.” Many of the activities we take for granted – from getting hired to opening a bank account or paying with a credit card – have an actual address associated to them. It is virtually impossible to do these things without a physical address where the postal service dares not tread.

They are confronting that problem head on in Rio. Thanks to lowering crime rates in the favelas and the work of a few committed NGOs laboring alongside local government, many streets, alleys, and walkways in Rio now have names, actual street signs, and houses are numbered.

Obviously, formalization ain’t a panacea. Mapping our barrios and incorporating their hidden capital can’t ensure success. Bringing peace to the favelas and the proliferation of public spaces – a park here, a library there – has obviously helped. And one can’t ignore the effect of the World Cup and the Olympics on a real estate market such as Rio’s. But to think that tackling the problems of our barrios requires the consent of the IOC is just another way of giving up.

Progressives love to say that “another world is possible.” It’s time they focused a little bit closer to home and began seeing that, with a little bit of effort and imagination, another barrio is also possible.

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  1. Interesting. Bogota and Mexico City are two other places where progressive alcaldias appear to have made slow but visible progress. They are not big shopping destinations so I am not sure that the Chavez government would have learned anything from these or similar examples.

    • You can do all of these things via consejos comunales. Waiting for government to solve problems which don’t require much money is a waste of time. If I lived in a rancho I’d vote for the construction of social and youth centers, for example. 100 families contribute a few bricks each. It’s all about popular organisation.

      • There are many ways to do “all of these things”. Why choose the way that, to do these things, forces the individuals in a community to give up their freedoms?

        • Consejos comunales are freedom from bureaucracy, and popular organisation is ultimately about the power to decide and defend what goes on in your community.

          • It all sounds good on paper but you’re letting out something really important: They don’t work, it has been proved many, many, many times, they don’t work.

          • If by democratic you meant state imposed, then yeah. Also, I,m waiting for the myriad of examples that prove the comunas system works.

          • You insist “they don’t work” because you don’t want them to work, just as you imagine Chavistas insisting that they do work simply because they want them to work. Insisting either way without reference to actual case examples is beyond pointless.

          • The improving the situation in the slums cannot be done without community involvement. In many cases you have to start by creating a community as a first step. You need to, provide it with a vehicle for empowerment, It is essential. The “consejos comunales” can be made to work and fulfill this requirement. Governments will have to provide the muscle and the capital. The situation in the favelas has been improved by a combination of efforts from all interested parties, including a lot of money, law enforcement and a river of blood. The main point is that nothing works long term unless you can get the community involved and committed to the project. As far as I can see, the “consejos comunales” are doing that. Will they work? Only if adequate long term support is provided by all the interested parties. Will they be used politically?, Of course they will, So what, play they game, All parties should be involved at the community level including the slums. That is what Capriles is trying to do in Miranda.

          • Consejos comunales are not “freedom from bureaucracy”. In fact, to be considered a consejo comunal, one must register with the very bureaucracy from which you pretend there is freedom. With chavismo, moreover, only those who express solidarity with the government bureaucracy are being allowed to register.

            Consejos comunales are bureacratic groupthink zombies, under the guise of empowerment of free citizenry.

          • Agreed, with this definition, there is no actual freedom from the bureaucracy when you still need to register in said bureaucracy, to receive money just to do the job that said bureaucracy was elected for. Really it doesn’t make sense at all.

    • Sure you’ve back yourself into a corner and now you’re trying to weave yourself out of it by coming at me with a philosophical angle, I didn’t ask a nebulous question, I asked for examples that show the comunas work, and by work I mean that they fulfill the purpose that they were created for. There’s nothing “impossibly vague” about my question.

        • Un consejo comunal es una forma de organización de la comunidad donde el mismo pueblo es quien formula, ejecuta, controla y evalúa las políticas públicas, asumiendo así, el ejercicio real del poder popular, es decir, poniendo en práctica las decisiones adoptadas por la comunidad. Of couse this sounds good on paper but it has never worked, so what makes you think it’ll work in Venezuela?

          • Many forms of popular power have been successful all over the globe. I don’t understand where you get the idea that people sitting together and planning their lives is unworkable.

          • “Many forms of popular power have been successful all over the globe.” That’s “impossibly vague” So could you be so kind to list the examples were this system has worked?

          • Porto Alegre in Brazil, Oaxaca in Mexico, Barcelona in Spain…

            Communes, unions, committees and cooperatives all over the world.

            Why don’t we include all the positive aspects of popular power from all the socialist experiments which failed for one reason or another?

            So, why do you think Venezuelans are incapable of running their own communities, factories and schools?

          • …people sitting together and planning their lives is not unworkable, provided that they do just that. There’s plenty of examples from around the world, and going back centuries in fact. Town halls, etc. etc. For some reason in Venezuela they have seen it fit to tie the Consejos Comunales to the ruling party ideology, and to the leader of the ruling party. An unnecessary and even damaging step that negates everything that a Consejo or council should be about.

          • What would you feel if for example, in Miranda, they installed a Consejo Comunal that is formally and in all practical matters “Caprilista” and adhered to the vision Capriles has for the Venezuelan economy? I at least am honest enough to call the thing completely ridiculous…

          • Whats wrong with a Consejo Comunal in Miranda that’s “Caprilista”? I am honest when I say that this would not be a completely ridiculous thing, and could actually bolster support for Capriles if it is effective (an outcome you obviously question).

          • I would just question the idea of making a Consejo Comunal with the objective of advancing the agenda of Capriles. For that, I guess, followers of his can have their own political party, not make the Consejo a department of the ruling Party.

            Of course, if followers of Capriles (or Chavez) have a good idea and can sell it to the Consejo on practical and non-partisan grounds, fine.

            But the Consejo should be only about solving problems and getting plain ordinary people with no political affiliations to help and be helped in solving them.

  2. Consejos comunales, or soviets, worked in the USSR to insure that anyone who opposed decisions of the Politburo could first be isolated, then eliminated. A very similar process occured in Communist China, where, in addition, “recalcitrant petit-bourgeois elements” could be pilloried, made to wear signs identifying them as enemies of the people, kicked, spat upon, and otherwise humiliated. In no country have communes been democratic in character; they are conveyor belts for regime policy. They have the advantage of allowing the regime to commit human rights abuses with impunity, due to deniability. “Our courts didn’t punish those reactionaries, it was the communes!”

    • You’re only making it more likely that these institutions (in themselves politically neutral) will always be taken over by Chavistas and possibly used in this way when you refuse to participate in them (and then slander them with such comparisons).

      • these consejo comunales will always run by chavistas, why? , because if thd community votes them out and elects non chavistas, the government sends their representatives and anulls the election because in their words ” only chavistas or party members “can be the directive of the consejo comunales. This happened in the one next in my community. then there are many examples of how things work in most of these consejos. The directive decides what they want to spend money on and the money is put in their account and then disappears. Again from my community, no responsibility to show us where the money went, nothing to be seen from it. One president used the money to buy busses, but the busses turned up being owned by his families cooperative and they make all the money with what was community money. Another president decided the community needed a cancha multiple. Ok it was built and is on ocasions even used for some sport activity (2 or 3 times a year) The next year they decided to put a roof over it and put in bathrooms. Sounds resonable, but it is still only used 2 or 3 times a year for sports, but the bathrooms are controlled by some malandros who use them to hide what they steel from our neighborhood, while they look for buyers of their merchandise. This community has no sewers but there is a system close by, perhaps their lives would be made better if the mmoney was spent on connecting them to it instead of these other “needs”. If the consejos leaders have a small vision only small ideas will come from them.

          • because no one in the community uses it. The young people are doing other things, there are a lot of young thugs in the area and maybe people do not feel safe there. It is right behind my house so when there are activities I hear it, that is why I can say it is only used a very few times a year. It was before, a cancha de bolas criollas which was used much more often. What I am saying is that those on the consejo directive very often spend the money on things that the community does not want or need but something that they can skim money off of. I think it all goes back to culture and that is… “me and my families interests first”, which is what most venezuelans, at all levels, have in their minds.

  3. “Porto Alegre in Brazil, Oaxaca in Mexico, Barcelona in Spain…” You forgot to mention that those are all true democratic countries, Venezuela is not. “Hasta ahora se han registrado más de 500 comunas, de las cuales más del 90% han fracasado en sus actividades económicas por la gran corrupción que reina entre sus miembros.” Those are made in Venezuela of course.

    • Your source ( does not mention what economic activities the communes are engaged in. It does not even give one example. Why do you think? Is that what passes for good journalism and a reliable source these days?

      • I’m starting to think you simply don’t get it, its is obvious that an initiative like the comunas is going to fail being administrated by one of the most corrupt governments in the world, It doesn’t matter how many nice words you try to put around it.

          • Oh, you didn’t mean administrating — you meant funding?

            So show me where in the Ley it says the comunas do not have full control over their funds.

          • Again, its one thing what says in the law and what gets done (Obviously seeing that the whole comuna fad was rejected in 2007, but hey, that’s a formalismo right?) If you’re naive to the point that you believe the comunas aren’t going to be government funded to further feed this deformed, pseudo capitalist thing we call “Socialismo del siglo 21”, then I really don’t know what to tell you, go ahead and enjoy your dark ages European feudal type of government.

          • You must create a project, the submitted to this people. You can read there on how to get funds:


            And they have to approve it and the grant the funds. It is great, but without any support on how to:

            -Create a project
            -Figure out the real community needs. This is a very important point. If you want to learn more about read about “human centered design”.
            -Structure priorities
            -Project management
            -Resource planning

            It is great to have the community involve, but delivering public policies requires good knowledge and management. If communities are not empowered with these tools it all ends in corruption and waste

      • Oaxaca? Mexico? There is plenty of non-state ‘governing’ going on there, including a parralel ‘tax’ system, but its not what I think you have in mind.

  4. Yoyo obviously has no direct first hand information on whats happened to most regime sponsored communes and cooperatives in Venezuela , they have ended up as total failures once the regime stopped funding them and their leaders often corrupt and parasitic practices. Communes as economic units failed miserably in Cuba, in China , in Russia and have had to be dismantled . The most succesful ones were the israeli Kibbutz which were made up of highly idealistic and motivated well educated people acting mostly in mid scale agricultural business ventures but even the last of them had to fold its doors some 5 years ago , they couldnt compete with private entrepeneurs. Communal initiatives can be ocassionally useful but only if they are created botton up, not top down ( never if they are legislated) and are set up to undertake very specific small scale practical tasks not to advance grandiose political agendas . Ordinary people in Venezuela are not naturally disciplined , organized and collectivist in temper ( as are the japanese for example) , they are highly individualistic, somewhat chaotic, happy go lucky, libertarians . Nothing could be less suited to the national temper . Mr Chavez fascination with communes is largely doctrinarian and chimerical . Too bad there is no one bold enough or honest enough to bring his collectivist dreams down to the harsh floor of human reality.

    • Ah, Venezuelans are just not as educated as Israelis, or as disciplined as the Japanese.

      Got it.

      Also, hal9000 says they fail because the state funds them, you say they fail when the state STOPS funding them.

    • “The most succesful ones were the israeli Kibbutz which were made up of highly idealistic and motivated well educated people acting mostly in mid scale agricultural business ventures.”
      Well done mate, good definition of a kibbutz.
      Eso del socialismo no es pa’ niches. Por eso funciona en Noruega, pero no en Venezuela. Contradicciones el que se necesite una poblacion altamente educada y snob, como para que estas cosas funcionen.

      • Please note that even the Kibbutz ultimately failed , they couldnt compete economically with private farmers despite the help from all those young jewish american teenagers wanting to have their romantic ‘kibbutz experience’. So its not only a question of Education , Cubans are supposed to be highly educated ( Castro dixit) and yet Communes have also proven a dissapointment there . Pure socialists organization do make higher demands on peoples sense of solidarity and discipline than most normal human beings can meet . Isnt it sad ??

  5. Yes yoyo just in case you havent noticed we are not as educated as the israelis nor as disciplined as the japanese , does someone saying it surprise you ? says something about your sense of reality and your love of ideological fantasy . The commune can be propped up artificially by official funding but the real test of its viability is its capacity to self fund , to become autonomous and not a parasite dependent on government hand outs thats how we know that they dont work in thi country .

    • So people cannot be educated or made more disciplined? Your arguments are convincing, I will have to reevaluate everything I know…

      • Yoyo, changing deeply rooted cultural patterns of thought anb behaviour can be very difficult and sometimes well neigh impossible , One of the conceits of many ideologies is the belief that human nature is putty and that it can be easliy altered if people are inspired by some magic ideological formula . that’s almost never the case . Look at the Polish peoples devout catholicism and how it was never uprooted no matter how hard the Red Regime there tried. They ended up by having oficially approved catholic chaplins appointed to each army regiment . Education that changes people’s culturally inbred inclinations also take a lot of time and intelligent effort . More important than attempting to build an artificial sytem of communes for purposes of political control would be to try to get the typical venezuelan macho to be a better more responsible parent , one that sticks to his children!! . About your reevaluation of everything you know , thats neither necessary nor desirable . But every smart man such as your self , should make it a habit to reexamine every so often some of his beliefs if they dont quite fit the facts as an exercise in intellectual honesty. You owe it to yourself .

    • What’s funny is that Bill seems to think it is a problem if poor communities receive funding from the state to carry out improvements to local infrastructure, build public works, etc. He calls them “parasites”!!

      Yoyo, why waste your time?

      • Actually his point is the funding is totally at the whim of government bureaucrats, just as it was in the 1930s in the Soviet Union. The local communes are utterly beholden to their central masters who control the oil wealth, without money transfers from Chavista controlled state institutions, communes might as well be an old ladies gossip club. Every single commune currently existing in Venezuela regular injections of funding, otherwise they are unable to accomplish any of their goals.

        Since there is no absolute mandatory transfer of funds from the central government to communes, communes have no real independence. They are about as much a independent tool of development as a serf on a feudal plantation, they can propose all sorts of improvements, but until the lord sets aside funding and permission, nothing will get done. Communes, as implemented by central governments, have always been a means of increased control. In Venezuela’s case they exist to strip local government of its control, since local government could potentially fall into the hands of the Venezuelan opposition of the Venezuelan communist party. If that happens with a commune, the PSUV can simply cut off funding and it will wither and die. Independent communes, such as exist in Israel, Seattle and elsewhere didn’t depend on a central government’s vision.

        • As a rule, in Venezuela, at least, the Communal alotted funds, few and far between at best, are ripped off in large part starting with the Government officials assigning them, and ending with the (often family members) officials of the Communes to which the funds are assigned, as mentioned by Bill Blass below.

      • Two of the many faces of GAC talking to each other–what’s next in this politico-psychodrama thriller–“The Three (or more) Faces of GAC”???

  6. Get a Clue , tell you a story to illustrate what I mean , a well intentioned regime once decided to fund the development of some 5 new cooperatives to build some industries , These cooperatives where led by a group or the regimes most fanatical followers , the supreme leader was to visit the inauguration of some of these plants a given day , as the date approached it was discovered that all the funds had been used to buy luxurious cars for the leaders of the new industries and to pay for their lovely secretaries (also mistresses) and to pay for trips and other essential pre development costs so that none was left to build the plants which the supreme leader was to open . The government entity entrusted with helping these cooperatives , so as to avoid embarrasing the great leader , had to go out in a rush and buy these plants and a very heavy price so that on the appointed date he could make a wonderful inspiring speech on how cooperatives and communes were key to the new world of justice and fairness that he was inaugurating . I can tell you many similar stories about how communes work for the people , but really I havent got the time , I know what Im talking about , perhaps you dont !!

          • You hadn’t even bothered to read it before commenting dismissively? Tsk. tsk. I swear I always read the entire post as well as follow the links before I do the same.

          • You should read it. It’ll help you identify a fraction more with the poor in Venezuela, instead of nurturing your prejudices and class superiority.

            As I said in a comment on here recently, it’s ordinary people squatting an abandoned building in a city full of greedy rent-seekers.

          • yoyo, I don’t know what you do for a living, perhaps linking websites in an effort to draw attention to your self-described virtuous feelings, but I have to say that your self-regard and presumptuousness is standing in the way of your efforts to be persuasive.

    • That article is crap, the reason John Lee Anderson is horrified by the Torre de David is not the lack of respect for its owners, but the fact that it is largely run and controlled by self confessed murderers. Fair seems to think he either needs to witness a murder in person, or assume the best. That is an absurd view of how reporting should be done, but plays nicely in idealizing Torre de David.

      Now you have a rebuttal of your smear job link, happy now?

      • No, not happy. Every family living in that tower has the right not to be associated with criminals.

        Your post is a smear on all the honest, pacifist, hardworking people living there.

        Just like Jon Lee you have zero respect for poor people who can’t afford extortionate rents.

        • We are just impressed at the degree of social and economic decomposition and collapse evolution experienced by the dog-eat-dog and brother-murders-brother Socialist Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, that forces honest, pacifist and hardworking people into such situations as described in the article, that salaries are not worth toilet paper, and that rents have gotten extortionate.

        • “Just like Jon Lee you have zero respect for poor people who can’t afford extortionate rents.”

          Jon Lee, as well as being indifferent to the poor and the downtrodden, as is clearly reflected in his decades of work as a war correspondent, also if you read his celebrated biography, holds the early love poems of Che Guevara in low regard, which may account for some of the abuse he takes from sensitive campus revolutionaries.

  7. Venezuela has communes that work and have for the past 30,000 years. We call them Indians! Small bands and clans that live in communes and make war on their neighbors. The Yanomani are the best example. In the modern world there are very few working examples and they continue to cease to exist at a rapid rate. Trying to make 19th century ideas by Huxley and others was and is a pipe dream or in this case a tool to maintain power. In other words you can’t go back to the jungle.
    Whether anyone likes it or not, Venezuela will take the same economic and development path as Brazil and the other countries in Mercorsur.

  8. Please take into account that the introduction of consejos comunales into Venezuelan political life is a Cuban CDR-inspired strategy to replace the traditional legitimately elected political structure with a more easily controlled (?), funded directly from Miraflores (in the best Venezuelan bozal de arepa style) and run by local PSUV party leaders with a strict view to hanging onto power for ever & ever. This has not progressed faster because good organization is not a Chavista forte, despite its military origin and the lowest level civil authorities known as juntas parroquiales, have already been eliminated with nary a comment.


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